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A (Very) Brief History of Camping

Brush up on the history of camping.

The surest sign that a society has attained a certain level of affluence is when its well-to-do members turn the life-or-death labor of the past into their recreation.

Food gathering, once the great struggle of humanity, becomes weekend fishing or hunting trips. The slow plodding progress of boots pounding the ground between point A and point B becomes hiking. The jarring management of an unruly and remarkably stupid ungulate becomes horseback riding.

Perhaps most "primal" of all is total emersion into the landscape, actually uprooting oneself from the air conditioning and plumbing of the suburbs to live in the wilderness. This ultimate rebellion against modern softness is what we term "camping," and it remains one of the most popular outdoor activities in the US.

Fundamentally, "recreational" camping is a recent invention, existing only in opposition to our relatively modern idea of housing. If you're a hunter-gatherer or a nomadic horseman riding the steppes, it's not camping, it's just bedding down for the night.

Similarly for pre-industrial societies, with their wood-fired heating, walls and roofs made of insulation-free natural products, and lack of indoor plumbing, camping was not a recreational activity; it was a (hopefully temporary) hardship you endured if you didn't have any better shelter. But, beginning in the mid to late 1800s, our concept of how people and nature should interact changed, and the idea of camping as an enjoyable and indeed important part of life infiltrated the public psyche.

The Victorian era in Britain (roughly 1830s-1900) was marked by the rapid industrialization of many manufacturing and extractive processes, and concomitant with this revolution was an explosion in urbanization, with power, money, and population becoming more and more centrally located in cities. This process, begun in England, soon expanded to the continent and, eventually, America.

This "progress" was met with some ambivalence by many people who felt that capital-M "Man" was somehow diminished, not merely physically but also morally and spiritually, by his estrangement from the countryside and the outdoors. Out of this this uncomfortable milieu of rapid social and economic change comes much of our great outdoor writing and philosophizing, things like Thoreau's Walden, Emerson's transcendental naturalism, and a whole slew of manuals and guides to the "Manly" outdoor sports of mountaineering, hunting, boating, and hiking.

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The first manual on camping was produced by an Englishman, although his formative camping experiences all occurred in the American West. The man who would become the "Father of Camping," Thomas Hiram Holding (1844-1930), began his outdoor life in 1853 when, with his parents, he camped for five weeks along the banks of the Mississippi before embarking on a wagon train trip westward.

Camping on the plains, they encountered buffalo herds, soon to be hunted nearly into extinction. They continued on into the Rocky Mountains, eventually coming to a stop in August, and then the next year travelled back east as part of another wagon train.

Harding returned to England and became a tailor in the vast smog-choked metropolis of London. Seeking refuge from the urban chaos, he and friends would canoe or bicycle through the countryside, hauling their gear and camping out as they travelled. One such trip through the wilds of Ireland in the 1880s became the basis for Holding's book "Cycle and Camp in Connemara" in 1898. This work established Holding as the preeminent expert on camping in the UK, leading him to write the first guide to recreational camping ever written, the aptly named "The Camper's Handbook" in 1908.

The "Father of Camping," Thomas Hiram Holding (1844-1930) Photo via wikimedia

In addition to being an entertaining and well-written bit of camping advice, the book is an interesting historical document that provides a unique glimpse into the world of camping before our high-tech, specialized gear came onto the scene.

Not coincidentally, 1908 also saw the foundation of the Boy Scout Association in England, under Robert Baden-Powell, who would eventually become the President of the society founded by Holding, of the Camping Club of Great Britain and Ireland. The scouting movement was founded on the core idea that outdoorsmanship, camping, and woodcraft were an important part of a boy's moral development, and quickly spread to the United States.

By 1910, the Boy Scouts of America had been founded and granted a congressional charter; the Girl Scouts of America followed soon-thereafter in 1912. Both these organizations introduced a range of American children and their parents to the world of camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities, coinciding with the establishment of some of the first National Parks.

The next great boost in American camping culture came as a result of the Great Depression. Part of Roosevelt's New Deal was the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Core, a government work relief program that employed, at its height, 300,000 people. The CCC specialized in providing unskilled manual labor for a variety of conservation and natural resource development programs.

The CCC would go on to produce more than 800 parks, many still in use today. All of these parks received improvements, including trails and developed campgrounds with amenities like shelters, fire pits, grills, and restroom facilities. The popularity of the CCC with the public resulted in increased awareness of the outdoor recreational available to American citizens. Camping soon became one of the quintessentially American vacations.

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Camping as recreation continued through the post-WWII economic boom, particularly through car camping and with hard-top campers. The environmental movement of the 60s and 70s had some roots in camping culture as well, and increased interest in conservation and the appreciation of the outdoors fed back into increased interest in camping.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association's 2012 Special Report on Camping, 42.5 million Americans over the age of six camped in 2011. It's a remarkable testament to how rapidly our society has changed in just a short 150 years, and how human's fascination with the outdoors and "getting back to nature" has tracked our simultaneously increasing reliance on modern technology and conveniences.

When did you start camping? What are your favorite things about it?

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A (Very) Brief History of Camping